Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Review of 'Sweet Caress'

I'm going off William Boyd a bit. He used to be a reliable mid-range story-teller, not too literary but solid and worth reading. Recently though his stuff is beginning to feel like it's written out of contractual obligation. This one is OK, though for a while in the middle I was using it to fall asleep at night, because it was reliably boring. It's a biography, and shapeless in the same way that real life is. For the most part things just happen to the main character. Every so often she makes impetuous decisions that have consequences, but there doesn't seem to be much of a relationship between the decisions and the consequences, at least in the head of the protagonist. There's lots of big stuff about the horrors of war, the secret state and so on, but it doesn't really seem to go anywhere. Oh well, it probably won't be the last Boyd I read...

Monday, June 04, 2018

Review of 'Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle'

This is a really good film about the failure of the housing market in the UK to provide housing for rent at prices compatible with the levels of wages provided by the labour market. There are lots of individual stories about how the structure of that market, and the political choices taken by successive governments, have afflicted people's lives. The decisions - notably but not only the introduction of 'right to buy' which hollowed out the stock owned by local authorities - are set out and the effects illustrated.

It's mainly a tale of misery. There is some coverage of struggles by tenants to prevent their estates being demolished or sold off, but not much sign of any of these being successful. The general air is one of inevitability in the face of overwhelming power and the 'naturalness' of the market; the film is mainly asking for more social housing to be built and offered at below-market rents to offset the 'natural' working of the market.

A few things occurred to me as a I watched.

Firstly, language - the battle is half lost when those in power can define words to mean what they want them to. "Affordable" housing is a category that doesn't actually mean people on low incomes - or even middling incomes - can afford it. "Regeneration" means clearing out the present residents, demolishing the housing stock, replacing it with something denser and worse (though not suffering from years of under-mainenance) and then bringing in new tenants or owners at much higher prices. "Consultation" is a name given to a process that includes some mechanism for soliciting the opinions of others without any obligation to take any notice of those opinions. Oh, and "luxury" flats - not actually anything to do with luxury, just private and owned instead of public and rented. The space standards in these "luxury" flats, and sometimes even the construction, is worse than what they replace.

Secondly, it's very much a bottom up view - there wasn't much analysis of the mechanisms by which this is so profitable for some companies, or how the subsidies and tax breaks given to the rich and even not-so-rich (people like me) stack the market against the people in the film. Real estate is a capital asset on which many kinds of privileges are heaped - if some of those were taken away then it wouldn't be such a fabulous place to stash money, and then prices would at least slow if not decline to more affordable levels. The shortage of property is a function of the demand side of the market, because the attractiveness of the asset class and the banks' freedom to create money means that demand will always outstrip supply. Building more homes ultimately doesn't make any difference. The utter idiocy of the 'help to buy' program illustrates this.

It would have been nice if the film had talked a bit about other 'global cities' - it focuses a lot on London. In some exactly the same process has happened. Central Paris and New York are only for very rich people now; so-called 'Yuppies' gentrify Brooklyn, which used to be for poorer people, and the latter get pushed further out. I think this started in the early 1980s as the wealthy began to move back into city centres, and they did that partly because of transport. Once car ownership reached a certain level then commuting in from the suburbs became a misery, and then it was better to live in the city centres. That's why the 'inner-cities' (an expression we don't hear so much any more) became so desirable, when they had recently been a by-word for poverty. A few cities (notably Berlin and Barcelona) have had some success in standing against this and maintaining social diversity in their centres - and rent control has been central to this. Rent control also helps to make the ownership of property less attractive, so it's a good thing on that score too.

The current property market acts as a mechanism for the distribution of wealth from poor to rich. Even if the clock were wound back to the 1970s and the state started funding the construction of social housing for rent at truly affordable levels, there would still be a transfer of wealth from renters to owners in every generation. It's worth noting that in some places (Singapore comes to mind) the state builds homes for sale on a low-interest mortgage. Perhaps we need to think about a mechanism - better than right to buy - that ensures that the transfer is stopped and perhaps even reversed.

Finally, it's probably worth saying that there's a relationship with the labour market and wage levels, and precarity, that doesn't get addressed much. The big social rented estates served a population that was mainly in work, in secure jobs. People in precarious jobs - zero-hours contracts and the like - can't afford a deposit either for rent or for buying, and won't be taken on by either landlords or lenders.

Watched at a showing organised by Stroud Against the Cuts at Lansdown Hall in Hall. Thanks for that - look how much it's set me thinking.

Review of 'The Sense of An Ending'

Poignant small book about an oldish bloke looking back on his life, the roads not taken, the consequences of choices made and not made, our inability to understand life from others' perspectives...all-round unhappiness, really.

Meticulously constructed in a voice that suggests the first person narrator is a bit...well, boring really, and aware that he is.

Doesn't need me to recommend it - it won a Man Booker.

Review of 'High Tide in Tucson'

A nice, early book of essays from Barbara Kingsolver - lots about nature and ecosystems, some really sensible stuff about relationships, and writing, and parenting, and feminism. All beautifully written, and this is before she even turned into the brilliant writer that she is now.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Review of 'The Clapper'

Slightly sad comedy about a not-very-successful bloke in LA who makes a living being a paid audience member on 'infomercials', a category of advertisment that we are spared in the UK. A chat show notices that he appears, somewhat disguised, in multiple ads and makes a running gag out of it, so that he becomes - not very happily - famous for his fifteen minutes. It intrudes on his friendships and his developing relationship with the improbably beautiful woman at the till in the garage where he gets his petrol.

A warning, if ever one was needed, to have nothing whatsoever to do with TV.

Watched on Neflix...one of the better films there.

Review of 'Eisenstein in Guanajato'

Peter Greenaway must have had a lot of fun making this, but the same can't really be said for the audience. It's visually striking, in a sort of hybrid Greenaway/Eisenstein sort of way...striking images, striking montage. Eisenstein is a very sympathetic, jaded virgin, at once still in love with The Revolution but losing his illusions about the USSR.

The most explicit gay sex scene I've seen outside of porn, but I guess I've had a pretty sheltered life in that respect. Not much about politics, either Soviet or Mexican, a little about Eisenstein's failed trip to the USA and his not-very-happy relationship with Upton Sinclair, who was briefly a sort of patron.

Not devoid of merit, but not worth the time spent watching it either. I put this on in the Common House in Springhill, and by the end most viewers had gone.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Review of 'Meat: A Benign Extravagance'

Well, it won't be surprising if any of my vegetarian and vegan friends don't like this book much, but it's a shame if they don't read it. It's epic in scope, fabulously well written, and full of amazingly useful detail about agriculture, carbon emissions and energy budgets. It's astonishing how much research it represents.

Ultimately whether you agree with the author's conclusions depends (I think) on the extent to which you think it's ethically acceptable to kill and eat other sentient creatures - it's not an argument with which he engages at all. But if you are vegan or vegetarian for sustainability reasons then you really ought to spend some time with this book.

It's worth noting that he argues for a 'default' level of meat consumption - he agrees it's not a very good name - by which means a diet with much less meat, based on the amount of animal protein available because of the other ways in which animals are useful in agriculture - traction, restoring soil, consuming waste, etc. He isn't standing up for cheap factory-farmed meat (or eggs or dairy).

In passing he deals with lots of other arguments about carbon sequestration, forestry vs. grassland, and about different visions of a sustainable future for humans - it's worth noting that plenty of 'ecologists' including James Lovelock describe a future dystopia in which humans are shut up in nightmare cities and fed a load of factory-produced feed, and elsewhere nature reservations allow 'Gaia' to regenerate safe from us (but perhaps not from enjoyment by our betters).

BTW if you are at all interested, there seems to be pdf available for download.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Review of 'My LIfe as a Courgette'

A really beautiful, poignant animated film about children in an orphanage. It's stop-motion animation, with plasticine, so most of the animation and the feeling that the characters communicate is by tiny little alterations in the shape of a plasticine nose or mouth - which means that it's really created by the viewer. Remarkable too in the way that a few details - strewn beer cans, for example - tell so much story in a few minutes.

Notable in the way that it celebrates non-family communities and relationships while showing that 'natural', blood relationships are sometimes awful. Early on there's some teasing of the newly arrived Courgette by the dominant kid at the orphanage, but it soon subsidises and the orphanage is an almost ideal community.

Watched at Lansdown Hall as a showing by the film club.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Review of 'Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906-1948'

This is a really, really good book. It's meticulously researched, with lots of primary and secondary sources. It's on top of the literature, acknowledging the contributions of others but maintaining a critical distance from earlier work and showing its limitations. It's primarily an academic rather than a popular or polemical work, so sometimes (mainly at the beginning and the end) there are some rather dry theoretical sections - I'm sure I would have loved those once, but now I sort of skimmed them. There are also some places when the detail became a bit overwhelming - sometimes in the alphabet soup of the various Palestinian-Arab groupings, for example.

For me, the book is most important in finally laying to rest any residual identification that I might have had with 'Socialist-Zionism'. It's clear that Labour Zionism, as practised by Mapai and its predecessors, as not a kind of socialism - not even of the Second International flavour pursued by social democratic parties in Europe and elsewhere, but rather a strand within the self-avowed colonialist project that was Zionism. Labour Zionism and its institutions, especially the Histradrut which was not a trade union movement or organisation as anyone else would recognise it, was a necessary element in delivering the Zionist project that involved the mass immigration of Jews from Europe - because it was a means to ensure that there was an economy and a labour market fit to absorb them.

In so far as it was interested in cross-communal solidarity with workers from the majority Palestinian Arab community, this was almost always with the intention of ensuring that low-wage Arab workers became less able to compete with their higher-paid Jewish counterparts. Most of the time it was utterly uninterested in such solidarity, though, and sought to build a differentiated labour market for Jewish workers through 'the conquest of labour', which included boycotts and campaigns for employers to dismiss Arabs and hire Jews instead. Reading some of the details of this, such as the campaign for construction companies to only use 'Jewish Stone', it is impossible not to feel more than a little uncomfortable.

Nevertheless the Histradrut and the various Jewish Labour parties dressed themselves in the clothes of socialism, with May Day rallies and singing of the Internationale, and appeals to Arab workers to show solidarity. Labour Zionism claimed that the mass immigration of Jews would benefit Arab workers too by raising their living standards, at the same time as it called for them to be dismissed from their jobs. This was rarely lost on the Arab workers, some of whom nevertheless showed remarkable forbearance in distinguishing between Jewish workers and the Zionist project.

Lockman resists the temptation to suggest that the professed socialism of the Zionist Socialists was merely cynical. He writes with some sympathy of the contradictions of the further reaches of the Zionist left, including first Poalei Ziyon Smol and then Hashomer Hatzair; he acknowledges that the colonialist perspective towards 'native' workers was not unique to the Zionist labour movement but characterised other imperial trade unionists too. Nevertheless, he also resists the temptation to suggest that with more goodwill and better luck the clash between Zionism and Palestinian Arab nationalism could have turned out well, or even turned out better. The trajectory of the Zionist project was always to take over the territory and to 'transfer' its then inhabitants, the Palestinian Arabs, to somewhere else. And that's what happened.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Review of Walkway

One of the more interesting books that I've read in a while, though I can't say for sure that it was one of the best. It's a sort of novelisation of some of the techno-utopian ideas expressed by, among others, Toni Negri and Kevin Carson. I was really surprised that neither of them got a name-check in the acknowledgements at the end of the book, because it seems to me to align quite well with their ideas and I find it hard to believe that Cory Doctorow has read widely in this domain and yet not come across them. On the other hand, it's a hell of a lot easier to read than actual Negri, which I find almost impenetrable.

It depicts an anarchist utopia in the not too distant future, existing in the instersices left by the mainstream world - 'default', in the novel. The future utopians just walk away from their militarised, impoverished, impossible lives in default, to take up a place in a technology-enabled cornucopia with few rules and no government.

As one expects from utopian novels, there's a lot of explaining, with plenty of conversations about how it all works that wouldn't happen in real life. I didn't much mind that. I didn't mind the need to provide some elements of drama and narrative by having the world of default strike out at the utopians, so that there was some actual tension that's hard to account for in a utopia. There's a sub-plot in that one of the utopians is a daughter of one of the patricians (zottas, from 'zotta-rich'), and is kidnapped by mercenaries hired by her father to deprogram her; that was fine too, and it let Doctorow discuss the contradictions of a society dominated by an ever-decreasing number of super-rich.

I was a bit more bothered by the other thread, though - the anarchists manage to scan 'minds' so that people can be backed up as software, so that no-one ever needs to die. I think this is an interesting thing to explore, but I felt it was too much going on in this book. I wished he'd saved it for a different one.